An appealing matchup between two football giants is on the table in the Champions League. Italian powerhouse AC Milan clash with English contenders Arsenal with both clubs having high expectations.
These two sides last met in 2008 in the first knockout stage when Arsenal prevailed 2-0 on aggregate, winning the decisive leg at the San Siro. Milan have suffered hardships against English sides in this competition, bowing out to Manchester United in 2010 and then being eliminated by Tottenham Hotspurs in last year’s Champions League.
I Rosssoneri finished second in Group H seven points adrift of Barcelona but comfortably qualified in a relatively weak group. Milan currently sit top of the table in Serie A and are hoping they can bring their form domestically, into Europe.
Massimiliano Allegri’s side is strong up front, thanks to the dynamic partnership of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Pato. Ibrahimovicin particular is deadly around the goal as he leads the club with 21 goals in all competitions. The Swedish International managed to find the back of the net 4 times in Champions League play and he does have a knack of being around the ball near the goal.
Pato, on the other hand has only notched 4 goals but half of those have come in Europe. The Brazilian is a gifted playmaker and he plays off Ibrahimovic very adeptly. Pato is coming off a thigh knock so don’t expect him to play the full 90 minutes. 19-year-old Stephan El Shaarawy could see playing time or the erratic Robinho could also see some time on the pitch.
The midfield should see the return of Ghana International Kevin-Prince Boateng to the starting 11. Boateng has been fighting a thigh injury himself but has told the team he is ready to go. If he is full strength, he gives Milan a much-needed boost in the midfield and he will give Arsenal problems while Milan is in attack. Clarence Seedorf will be another key as the Dutch International can provide service to his strikers or stay back and defend. Urby Emanuelson provides depth and physical strength in the midfield.
The back four is spearheaded by Brazilian Thiago Silva. A strong defender who brings pace and runs from the flank, Silva has become a driving force for Milan and is a player to watch. Alessandro Nesta should be in the starting 11 after being sidelined with a hamstring knock. Nesta’s return should give Milan that extra depth in the back four.
Christian Abbiati is the last line of defence and while not spectacular, he won’t make critical mistakes either.
Arsenal are always unpredictable with their lineup. Arsene Wenger likes to keep his opponents guessing, which sometimes can confuse his own team. Up front should see Dutch striker Robin Van Persie who leads the club with 28 goals in all competitions. Van Persie also leads the Gunners with 4 tallies in Europe. If Wenger plays his cards right, joining Van Persie should be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The 18-year-old has been quite a sensation in North London and is eager to prove himself on the European stage. However Wenger still favours Theo Walcott at times even though the English International’s play has been turbulent at best. Andrey Arshavin may also see time but the Russian has been wasteful for the most part this season.
The midfield has been tinkered and toyed by Wenger with varying results. Aaron Ramsey has been brilliant and awful sometimes in the same match. Ramsey is so unpredictable that Arsenal supporters don’t know what to expect from him. Alex Song returns from the African Cup of Nations where he can provide service, but his temper can go awry. Song needs to show self-control if Arsenal are to succeed. It is unlikely Gervinho will see time in the first leg but expect the Ivory Coast star to see the pitch at the Emirates in March.
The back four has improved after a horrible start to the season. I’m still not convinced that this group though can put it together in the big match, especially Laurent Koscielny. While a Wenger favourite, Koscielny lacks pace and is known to crumble in big games.
Polish International Wojciech Szczesny has recovered from a pitiful start to his season. However he will let in the odd howler from time to time so Milan should attempt as many shots as possible towards the Arsenal keeper.
While Arsenal have been more adroit as the season continues, they are known to combust at the seams at the wrong time. I don’t trust the Gunners, especially Wenger’s tactics in which he outsmarts himself more often than not. Milan are a dangerous side and while they aren’t the experts pick to win Europe, they do have the ability to pull off a strong run and surprise their critics. Milan advances to the quarterfinals and ends the English jinx.
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